obesityObesity is now so common that it risks becoming the new norm in Europe, according to a report published by the World Health Organisation

It claims that up to 27% of European 13-year-olds and 33% of 11-year olds are overweight. "Our perception of what is normal has shifted; being overweight is now more common than unusual. We must not let another generation grow up with obesity as the new norm," said the WHO regional director for Europe, Zsuzsanna Jakab. "Physical inactivity – coupled with a culture that promotes cheap, convenient foods high in fats, salt and sugars – is deadly."

The country profiles made by the health organisation give a bleak picture of nutrition, obesity and physical inactivity among Europe’s 53 member states. The profiles were launched at a conference in Athens at the opening event for the Greek Presidency of the EU.

Among 11-year-old boys and girls, the prevalence of overweight was highest in Greece (33%), Portugal (32%), Ireland (30%) and Spain (30%) and lowest in the Netherlands (13%) and Switzerland (11%). The figure below, taken from the country profiles, shows the prevalence of overweight in 13-year-olds in Europe.

Further reading: Child obesity-related admissions soar

In 23 out of 36 countries, more than 30% of boys and girls aged 15 years and over are not getting enough physical activity. Among adults, women's rates of insufficient physical activity range from 16% in Greece and 17% in Estonia to 71% in Malta and 76% in Serbia.

"We need to create environments where physical activity is encouraged and the healthy food choice is the default choice, regardless of social group,” said the WHO’s Joao Breda. “Physical activity and healthy food choices should be taken very seriously in all environments – schools, hospitals, cities, towns and workplaces. As well as the food industry, the urban planning sector can make a difference."

Meanwhile, France and some Scandinavian countries have implemented policies in line with Health 2020, the WHO policy framework for health. The actions include the promotion of vegetable and fruit consumption in school, along with school lunch initiatives, taxes on foods to reduce intake, tighter controls of advertising, sound systems for surveillance and monitoring, and action to promote physical activity, especially among children.

WHO recommends the following action at different levels, National governments can enforce legislation and insist on informative labelling, nutrient profiling and regulated marketing of food products, requiring the food industry to take responsibility. Local governments can make healthy foods available, and insist on town planning and infrastructure that encourage healthy lifestyles and make the healthy choices easy choices. At the individual level, consumers can be empowered to make informed choices through having access to adequate information.